Brian Wilson's Better Days

Cruising L.A., eating tacos and watching basketball with a pop genius at peace

Brian Wilson is in the middle of one of rock & roll's most astonishing third acts. Credit: Photograph by Mark Seliger

Almost any day in L.A., you could find Brian Wilson pretty easily if you wanted to, sitting in a booth by the window at the Beverly Glen Deli, with a bowl of blueberries and a hamburger, or shuffling along the path of a tree-shaded park near his home in Beverly Hills. He does this circuit — deli, park, home — two or three times a day, what he calls "my daily regime," to keep in shape and to quiet his mind. "I'm anxious, depressed, I get scared a lot," says Wilson, who turned 73 on June 20th. "It's been that way for about 42 years. The park helps keep me straight. I show up feeling bad, and I leave feeling good. It blows the bad stuff right out of my brains."

On an 80-degree winter morning, Wilson walks the curving trail, his six-foot-three frame stooped and a little unsteady, but moving fast. "See that bench up there?" he says, breathing hard. "Just under that tree? We're gonna sit down there. Get ready."

We've walked about 60 yards since our last rest, in this lush oasis of palms and bougainvillea, surrounded by estates once owned by Walt Disney and Frank Sinatra, and the $18 million chateau where Michael Jackson died. "I don't normally stop to rest," he says, unconvincingly. "But I can tell that you want to stop a little bit, so I'm doing it for you."

Wilson wipes perspiration from the back of his hands onto his red Hawaiian shirt and closes his eyes. With a breeze blowing through his swept-back silvery hair, and the sun shining on his pale but still-handsome face, he looks almost peaceful. "The people in Los Angeles are fucking cool," he says brightly. "The Malibu crowd, my family, the people at the deli — low-key. That's the way I like it. I don't like surprises. I'm not as adventurous as I used to be. I don't know what happened. I guess I got old. That's just the way things go."

Go behind the story with RS editor Nathan Brackett and writer Jason Fine:

A petite older woman with frosted hair walks past, cooing at her two tiny dogs. "Hi, Brian," she says, with a big, doll-like smile.

"Hey, man," Brian responds.

"A regular, like me," he says after she's gone. "Think she's foxy?"

Except for when he's in the studio or on tour, this is Brian Wilson's life as a senior-citizen Beach Boy: cruising Beverly Hills in his midnight-blue Mercedes, stopping for chili dogs and doctors' appointments and maybe a little exercise, then back home to park himself in his big red chair in the family room, where he listens to the Fifties station on Sirius and watches Wheel of Fortune, while family life swirls around him. He has no hobbies. He doesn't use e-mail or surf the Internet or read the newspaper. He lost his cellphone a few years ago and never replaced it. He rarely sees old friends. "I wouldn't even know how to reach most of them," he says, "or what I'd say."

Wilson and his wife of 20 years, Melinda, have five kids, ages five to 18, and about a dozen dogs. (Wilson also has two daughters, Carnie and Wendy, from his first marriage.) The youngest kids, Dakota and Dash, climb all over Wilson in his red chair, and the whole family is in sync with his gentle eccentricities. "At a really young age, I understood that Dad is never going to be like the other dads, but he's still dadlike," says Daria, 18, who designed the packaging (and suggested the title) for Wilson's new album, No Pier Pressure. 

Sometimes, Wilson wanders upstairs to his music room, but he gets easily discouraged. "I can't write a song to save my life," he says. "I sit at the piano and try, but all I want to do is rewrite 'California Girls.' How am I gonna do something better than that? It's a fucked-up trip."

One afternoon, we see a matinee of The Wrecking Crew, a documentary about the L.A. session musicians who played on records by everyone from Nat King Cole to Phil Spector, and most famously on Wilson's mid-Sixties Beach Boys classics. The film begins with clips of Wilson in the studio recording Pet Sounds at age 23: the hip, confident auteur in his chunky glasses and psychedelic shirt, pushing the veteran musicians to bring to life the complex, emotional music he was striving for.

It was surreal — and a little unnerving — to sit in a theater full of people, watching Wilson watch himself. The experience was not relaxing for him, either. He sat pressed against the back of his seat, impassive, while his younger self bounced around the tiny studio with vigor and purpose. After 45 minutes, Wilson bolted. I found him on a bench in the lobby. "That was a real ball-puncher," he said. "A heavy nostalgia thing.

"I had so much energy, I had it so together," he added. "I'd love to have some of that back."

For a guy who admits retirement may not be far off, Wilson is extremely busy. In April, he released No Pier Pressure, which features guest vocalists including Kacey Musgraves and Zooey Deschanel, and this summer he's playing amphitheaters and arenas in the U.S. and Europe. Love & Mercy, an excellent biopic starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as Wilson in different periods of his life, was released on June 5th, and the film goes a long way toward illuminating the tragedies and triumphs of Wilson's life.

All of this comes at the tail end of one of rock & roll's most unexpected and astonishing third acts: Since 1999, when Wilson launched his first-ever solo tour, at age 56, he's been on a nonstop creative roll, finishing his long-lost Sixties masterpiece, Smile, in 2004, touring the world with his stellar band, and even putting aside decades of tension and lawsuits to reunite with the Beach Boys for a 50th-anniversary album and tour.

Though much of his recent work has cast Wilson as a soft-rock survivor, he still shows glimmers of his edgier, idiosyncratic pop genius, especially on 2008's That Lucky Old Sun. On that and his two most recent albums, Wilson's best songs grapple with an uneasy subject: the end. Buried at the back of That's Why God Made the Radio, the Beach Boys' 2012 reunion record, is the hymnlike "Pacific Coast Highway" (which was originally intended as part of a 15-minute suite that we can only hope will one day be released in its entirety): "Driving down Pacific Coast/Out on Highway One/The setting sun/Goodbye." No Pier Pressure ends on a swelling, Phil Spector-style send-off with a similar, unmistakable message: "The Last Song."

"I've carried a lot of weight on my shoulders — a heavy load," Wilson says. "For me, music is about love. Love is the message I want to share. I hope people feel the love in my music. That makes the hard work worth it."

Sometimes, Wilson surprises you. Today, instead of lunch at the deli, he suggests a drive down to Malibu for sushi.

"How much gas you got?" he says, climbing into my car in his driveway, attired in his usual uniform: tropical-print shirt, sweat pants, white New Balance sneakers. His hair, perfectly slicked back yesterday, is a wavy mess today, but his blue eyes are clear and bright. He looks happy.

"We've got more than a half tank — plenty of gas."

Traffic is backed up along Sunset. "Hey, don't worry about the traffic, man," Wilson says. "Let's just relax. You got enough gas?"

Wilson asks me to set the AC to a chilly 64 and turn up the volume on his favorite station, K-Earth 101. He sings along to Steve Miller's "Rock 'n Me," the Bee Gees' "You Should Be Dancin' " and Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust." "What a weird lyric," he notes. A few seconds into "Thriller," he asks me to hit "mute."

"Hard to handle," he says. "A little scary." Then, after a moment: "Hey, you ever run out of gas before?"

No, never.

"Well, then," he says with a nervous chuckle, "what the hell are we worried about?"

Along the way, Wilson points out the street in Pacific Palisades where he rented a house in the early Eighties, when he weighed 300 pounds and subsisted on steaks, crème de menthe cocktails and cocaine. "I was so lazy I pissed in the fireplace," he says. "Can you believe that?" Further along, he shows me the ashram he used to attend, back when the Beach Boys got into TM with the Beatles. "I meditated my ass off," he says. "I did it for about two years. Then it stopped working, so I quit." Heading north on the PCH, he sees Moonshadows, a restaurant down the beach from where he once lived. "I used to hit that place up," he says. "Sneak out of the house, drink a bottle of wine and go dance around by myself."

Wilson lived in Malibu from 1982 until 1995, nine of those years under the care of Eugene Landy, an unconventional therapist who was hired in 1983 to curb Wilson's drug use and get him back to work after years of erratic, self-destructive behavior. In some ways, the Landy program worked. "I got off on exercising — I was in Olympic-style shape," Wilson says proudly. But Landy turned Wilson into a virtual prisoner: He moved into Wilson's home, relocating him to a rental down the beach; installed padlocks on the refrigerator and live-in bodyguards to monitor Wilson's behavior; and cut off contact with Wilson's friends and family. Landy kept Wilson off recreational drugs, but he dangerously overmedicated him with sedatives and psychotropics, which left him despondent and occasionally nearly catatonic. "I thought he was my friend," says Wilson, who rarely says anything negative about anyone, "but he was a very fucked-up man."

These years are portrayed in terrifying detail in Love & Mercy. The film focuses on two distinct periods of Wilson's life: Dano plays Wilson in the mid-1960s, when he was producing his greatest records but unraveling emotionally; Cusack plays Wilson when he was living under Landy's care as a lost and largely forgotten man. "It was hard to watch the first time," Wilson admits. "I felt exposed. But it's a factual film. Whatever the film shows, it was much worse in real life." 

Cusack says he cherished the time he got to spend with Wilson preparing for the role. "He's incredibly tough," says Cusack. "Like, motherfucking, seriously tough. He's not perfect. But he's healthy and happy and he's making music, and he survived. Michael Jackson didn't make it. Elvis Presley didn't make it. Brian made it."

One reason he made it is because of Melinda (played by Elizabeth Banks in the film). She was instrumental in getting Landy removed from Brian's life, and since she and Brian were married, in 1995, she's helped him get proper treatment for his mental illness, as well as orchestrated his amazing career comeback. Despite many triumphs, she acknowledges it has been a tumultuous journey. "You never know what you're going to get with Brian," says Melinda one night over dinner. A former model who met Brian when she was working as a Cadillac saleswoman and he came to buy a car, Melinda has a regal beauty, and she speaks candidly about her and Brian's life together. "This wonderful, troubled guy has surprised me every single day of our 20-year marriage. His life is like a tug of war. It's up and down. That's his cycle. It's like anybody that suffers from depression. It's real, man. But through it all, he's the bravest, kindest person I've ever known."

Sometimes, when you're talking to Wilson, you notice that he's not looking into your eyes but somewhere above the top of your head, as if a fly has landed there and it's distracting him. Cusack, who studied Wilson's body language closely, thinks Wilson's upward focus has something to do with the way he reads people: "I was like, 'Is he looking for an aura?' He's feeling you, seeing colors and vibrations. He's not a formatted, linear political creature. He's all quantum artist. I love that about him."

Darian Sahanaja, a member of Wilson's band for 17 years, has noticed the gaze, too — he used to think Brian was just looking at his hair, which rises impressively from his forehead. "I could be three feet away from him, he'll look at my eyes for a split second and then he'll look up, as if he's seeing how high my hair's going," says Sahanaja. "He's always looking upward. It's always hopeful. He looks like maybe he's going to see an angel fly out of the top of you, then he'll know you're one of the good guys."

One evening last spring, Wilson passed up courtside Lakers seats because he wanted to attend his son Dylan's basketball game at a local rec center instead. Dylan's team, the Thunder, was undefeated, and the family — Brian and Melinda, Daria, Dylan, Dash and Dakota, plus their longtime housekeeper Gloria and two nannies (the couple's other child, Delanie, 17, is away at boarding school) — headed out from Beverly Hills to root him on.

On the way, we stop for dinner at Ernie's, a favorite Mexican spot in the Valley. Wilson sits at the head of the table, sips Diet Coke with a straw and announces, "No one has to rush through dinner. We have plenty of time."

"Dylan, we're winning tonight," he adds. "I have a good feeling."

Over enchiladas and tacos, Wilson tells Dylan about his own childhood athletic career, something the 11-year-old seems totally unaware of and soaks up with glee. Wilson was a star center fielder at Hawthorne High, a skittish hitter but a strong fielder with a great arm. "I could run the bases in 44 seconds and throw the ball from center field all the way to the catcher. I wanted to be a center fielder for the Yankees. That was my ambition, but I got sidetracked into the music business."

Wilson also played quarterback for the football team, but he quit senior year. "I got knocked on my back and I felt like I was going unconscious," he says. "It scared me silly. I go, 'Coach, I quit! I don't want to play anymore!' "

"Was the coach mad?" asks Dylan.

"He just said, 'Hit the showers, Wilson!' "

"Did you have to take showers with the other players?" Dylan says with a giggle.

"Oh, yeah, I didn't like that part."

At the game, the Wilsons line up along a bench near one end of the floor. Brian has been known to walk across the court in the middle of the game, but tonight he sits on a folding chair next to Melinda, holding her hand.

With 11 minutes left in the second half, the Thunder are down by 10. "We might be fucked, honey," Brian says. Then Dylan's team makes a late run, partly fueled by Dylan's two clutch free throws, and the Thunder win in overtime.

Dakota and Dash jump up and down, and Dylan rushes to hug his dad. "See, Dylan," Wilson says. "If you stick with it, things work out in the end. Not always, but sometimes."

At times like this, Wilson seems as relaxed as I've ever seen him — goofing around with his family, sleeping as late as he wants, even soaking up a little sun in the backyard while the kids jump on the trampoline. Soon, Wilson will have to drag himself out of this Beverly Hills idyll to head out on tour — three grueling weeks across the U.S., followed by Europe — and the anxiety is starting to creep in. "I'm trying not to think too much about it or I'll get nervous," he says, driving up Hollywood Boulevard one day. "I'll get into it and be fine, but it's hard to transition."

A few minutes later, "California Girls" comes on the radio, and unlike most times one of his own songs plays, Wilson doesn't mute it — he asks me to turn it up. "I call myself Brian Willpower Wilson," he says. "I tell myself that, and it helps me push through the tough stuff. You know, I feel like I've got about 15 years left, so I want to make the most of it. So I'm taking things a little easier lately. Like, when I wake up in the morning, instead of going, 'Oh, no, not another day,' I'm going, 'Oh, God, thank you for another day!' "